Growing up in Southern California, swimming was as integral to my summers as the guarantee of scalding my feet on hot sidewalks. My mama enrolled me in swim lessons at age four, but I clung to her leg with ferocity when I saw that lessons meant joining dozens of unfamiliar kids in the shallow end of an Olympic-sized pool. A male lifeguard tried to cajole me into joining them, but when it became apparent that I wouldn't budge, my mama gave him permission to pry me off her leg and toss me in. By the end of the summer I advanced enough to manage a mean bellyflop off the high dive.
When my daughter was an infant, I tried to enroll us in the infant/parent swim classes where babies manage to hold their breath underwater, but they were so popular that I couldn't get her a slot. Nonetheless, all of the research I read said that toddlers were safer off with regular water exposure, so she attended simple water classes on a drop-in basis from age two.
Now that she's five, this is the first summer she's taking twice-per-week swim lessons at our local community college. At five dollars per lesson, they're quite affordable, but this doesn't stop me from calculating that it would be more practical for families with multiple children (like mine) to have a parent become a swim instructor rather than paying for each child to be taught. My friends, however, are quick to point out that their children won't listen to them like they'll listen to their teachers. In any case, my daughter is making progress swimmingly, and she adapted to the social setting far more readily than I did.
From an international perspective, I think swim lessons tend to be an individual parenting decision rather than a sweeping cultural norm. We've hosted a Kenyan exchange student who didn't know how to swim, and I have both American and French friends who never learned more than a dog paddle. But in Pamela Druckerman's informative book Bringing Up Bébé, I read that swim lessons are offered at community pools throughout France. (I also learned that males there must wear speedos since swim trunks can, in theory, be worn elsewhere and might dirty the pool. I find it difficult, however, to imagine a Frenchman parading about town in swim trunks.)
Was your swimming experience adequate enough to teach your own child to swim, or will you rely on formal swim lessons for your children like so many American parents do? Do you see your child's personality revealed when he or she is put into a new social setting?